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Sister Act, Whoopi, and images of nuns: discuss

Sister Act movies have long been a source of entertainment but also a problem when it comes to communicating who Catholic Sister Actsisters and nuns really are. Unfortunately many people’s image of nuns is based solely on Whoopi Goldberg as lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier hiding out as Sister Mary Clarence in a San Francisco convent (do we even know the religious community?). Each of the nuns portrayed in the movie is naturally a caricature but still the images are compelling enough that they tend to seep into our imagination and to feed false stereotypes: stern mother superior, quiet mousy little sister, bubbly bumbling nun.

And honestly, people, do nuns really need a Vegas lounge singer to enlighten them to the needs that are literally right outside their convent door?

But enough about what I may think, I’m much more interested in what you think because I’m still not sure what to do with these movies. In some way they can lend themselves to positive perceptions of nun life but in other way to negative or false perceptions.

Sister Act movies, Whoopi, and images of nuns: discuss.


Chuck September 24, 2008 at 5:06 am

well my wife is a private detective and people always ask me if in real life its like the movies. i always tell them that she doesn’t drink as much as the detectives in movies, but she kills way more bad guys. then she tells me to shut up and she tells people how things really are. i’d say those movies worth in the real world may be as an open door to tell people more about the realities of religious life.

aneesah mcnamee September 24, 2008 at 6:31 am

hi – as a sister – many people ask me if i live as the sisters in this movie do – well – ehrrr- nope! and sometimes it urks me that the sisters in this movie are portrayed as being a bit naive and childish – like you said – what group of sisters wouldn’t know the needs right outside there door??? but – i do think it opens the door to conversation and when people learn that i am a sister – and the difference between me and the ones in the movie are about 40 years – and a whole different way of living – there are ‘nuns’ that live a cloistered life and are dedicated to prayer – and wear the habit – and there are the apostolic sisters that are out in the trenches – that would be me and you too, julie!! i love your blog – very good!

Christopher Humphries September 24, 2008 at 7:58 am

So, you’re suggesting nuns aren’t really like the nun on “Blues Brothers” in the orphanage? That they don’t send people on adventures that are full of comedy and crime antics, with the motto of “we’re on a mission from God”? This changes everything!

sue September 24, 2008 at 6:23 am

Sometimes the movies and people sharing the nun stories about Catholic school make nuns seem kind of scary. Mother Superiors do get a bad rap. The Mother Superior in The Sound of Music was kind and gentle and the kind of Mother I would want to have if I were a nun.

sue September 24, 2008 at 6:32 am

PS I must admit that a lot of my idea of nuns has come out of the movies. However a lot of what I saw stirred my heart to more devotion to Christ and I wanted to be a nun. I ended up married (35 years now) but it has really influenced my walk with Christ and still does. Pictures of nuns and some stuff in movies has given me a “picture” or visual of devotion to Jesus Christ. It’s helped me to see what devotion “looks” like.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF September 24, 2008 at 9:23 am

When I saw Sister Act, I was amazed by how much some of the other sisters (the background ones who made up the choir) resembled my own sisters (even me–GASP!) When my sisters all get together, we run the gamut in personalities, life experiences, etc. One of our elderly sisters, like Peter Pan, never really grew up, but she just keeps all of us young at heart. There are some sisters that are so far into justice issues and they keep us aware and informed. I know one sister who has always prayed the morning paper and the evening news (She kept us up on current events through her petitions at Mass when as novices we couldn’t watch TV!)

Yeah, the nuns in Sister Act were naive and sterotypical, but you got to admit that they also had some great scenes. One of my favorites is when they ask the helicopter pilot to fly them to Reno but he refuses so they start praying for him. My favorite line is, “(When he is in his time of need) Don’t leave him howling and yowling in the street.”

Uh, BTW, Did I tell you that I am in the crowd scenes at the end of “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”? (In my post Vatican II beige habit. Now I wear the optional habit). See the Joyful, Joyful video. See those pair of hand clapping under the blue light? That’s me! I also get a millisecond of face time at the end of the movie when the winning choir is announced.

Over the years I have debated with myself if this was a good idea or not to be in this movie. Today I think it was a good idea. I provided a contrast from the fake nuns in the movie. I got to share with some people about the faith. I even got to sing on that big ol’ stage between takes. (I did “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady” (peppered with on-liners jokes) because, gee, “Ave Maria” seemed so inappropriate for this crowd.)

sue September 24, 2008 at 7:50 am

The nuns that live a cloistered life and are dedicated to prayer are in the trenches as well – in the spiritual trenches.

deerose September 24, 2008 at 11:03 am

I do think many of the images of nuns in these films are stereotypical. Some sisters may be naive, others stern and yet others bubbly. But there is so much more. The Sister Act films are light-hearted, upbeat comedies. They are not realistic nor do they try to be. I feel neutral about these productions. They don’t do any harm nor do they do any good for the image of religious life out in the world.

Lucia September 24, 2008 at 1:44 pm

While maybe these movies don’t put religious life in an accurate light, they do put religious life in the spotlight. This is a good thing overall because maybe people don’t get the facts, but they are aware of religious life at least. It provides an opportunity to learn. Then again, most people won’t take that opportunity. Still, no one is pretending that Sister Act, etc. are even vaguely accurate. People know these things aren’t true. Just my thoughts. Personally, I loved Sister Act. But I also love real life sister acts. 

Kazimer September 24, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Hey Sister Julie, I grew up being taught by nuns/sisters in the mid 60′s to early 70′s and they definitely had a positive impact on my life. And, when I saw The Blues Bros. when it first came out I have to admit I did laugh at the scene with the Sister and Jake and Elwood scene and the desk going down the stairs scene. Similarly, the Sisters in Sister Act were light hearted and fun(ny). I believe these types of portrayals have their place and resonate with so many of us that had interaction with and were taught by nuns/sisters. Not a bad thing , but not the complete story either. That is where Sisters , like yourself and one of my other personal favorites Sister Mary Martha, come into play. Both of you , by your blogs and in your own individual ways, break the mold of the perception people hold of nuns/sisters. Through these blogs I have come to admire and appreciate the fullness and unique life of nuns/sisters that I never experienced. This is indeed an exciting time for young people to get connected and plugged into this beautiful way of life and living. And, so through and with you ( and your Sister bloggers), the story continues.

alicemary September 24, 2008 at 5:10 pm

I had to smile when I saw this topic! Yes the nuns are all kind of stereotypes, and yes they are a little extreme, but you know what, I loved the music. Granted, not gregorian chant, but relate-able. I still sing “I will follow HIM” and know I am talking about Jesus. That is what always strikes me, and to this day those songs mean something to me!!

Gayle OSF September 25, 2008 at 7:43 am

I’m guessing Sister Mary Robert’s habit was different because she was still in formation. Someone asked what order they supposedly were. I think Carmelite, since one sister says “Has anyone seen a nun, a Carmelite nun?” I loved the movie despite its obvious flaws and inaccuracies. I had a better idea of fact and fiction, but admittedly some people won’t. My friends and I did a lip sync to Hail Holy Queen my senior year of college dressed in old cassocks and homemade stapled-together veils. We had so much fun and won first place. Dressing as a nun CAN be habit forming! 

Sister Julie September 25, 2008 at 6:24 am

Chris … so sorry to shock you! Granted though, we nuns do have our fair share of antics (normally not criminal) and favorite riffed quotes (“Leave no nun behind.”).

Another Sister Julie … You. Were. AMAZING. That’s is so awesome! 

Interestingly I find I am agreeing with pretty much every comment here. I definitely have mixed feelings about the whole thing at the same time I do love both movies.

As I think more about it, I think one of the difficult things is the lack of equally compelling portrayals of real nuns. Of course, Sister Susan Sarandon (kidding!) — real nun Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, portrayed in Dead Man Walking — is an exception to this. And indeed the portrayal was definitely compelling. For me it made a huge difference to know she was a real nun.

Anyways, I think if there were as many real nun portrayals, or at least authentic nun portrayals as there are caricatures of nuns, I would be more okay with the caricatures because they’d be balanced with authentic images. When people only ever encounter caricatures they have nothing else to compare that image with. They can (understandably) assume that all nuns smack people with rulers or all nuns are naive.

Annie September 25, 2008 at 7:09 am

Despite the silliness of the movie, I thought in a way it helped to dispel stereotypes. Not so much of nuns in general, but just of how sometimes you can have an image embedded in your mind and it takes exposure to change that. Dolores had an image of “white women dressed as nuns” that went back to her elementary school teacher who yielded a ruler. Whether her memory of her teacher was real or not, it affected her, in the sense that nuns frightened and confused her. Then she has to hide out in a convent, and despite her arguments with the Mother Superior she starts to realize that these are just people. In turn, Maggie Smith’s character judges Dolores as being completely unfit to spend any time in a convent, but as time goes on she grows to like her, and at the end even says that in some ways, Dolores has become a nun – much to Dolores’ shock. In that way, I thought the movie was actually quite thoughtful.

Yes, the Sisters’ naivite about the world outside was quite ridiculous, like a group of Sisters would really ignore the poverty in their neighbourhood. In addition, the movie takes place in Las Vegas, and in 1994 (though aren’t they wearing typical pre-Vatican II habits for the most part? And why is Sr. Mary Robert’s habit different from the rest of them?).

I still love the movie though, because it’s just too darn funny. Perhaps what bothers you is that you know that those producing the movie were out to make money, and not to portray nuns thoughtfully? I felt that way about the portrayal of Sr. Helen on Grounded for Life, which is a hysterical family sitcom. In the beginning they did portray her quite thoughtfully, but in later seasons, as they perhaps ran out of time or patience, they made her quite stereotypical and it was a disappointed.

Anyway, unforgettable Sister Act scenes for me are when Sr. Mary Robert asks Dolores when she got “the call”, and Dolores is looking at her and visibly panicking because she has NO IDEA what she’s talking about; Dolores praying at lunch, starting with “Bless us oh Lord…” and then going onto who knows what, and Dolores’ interaction with the cop – “You can do whatever you want as long as you keep me alive!” And then seeing Mary Wickes, who is so funny, in her third movie appearance as a nun (without counting her role as a parish housekeeper in the Father Dowling Mysteries!).

Oh, and the music rocks! 

Annie September 25, 2008 at 9:45 am

Sr. Gayle – that’s hilarious! Were you already thinking about being a nun then, or was it coincidental? And you’re right, she did say they were Carmelites, I had forgotten that line! I’m still confused about Sr. Mary Robert’s habit. If she were a postulant, then wouldn’t she not have the title of Sister yet? And if she were a novice, wouldn’t she wear a white veil? Or a I totally off? And why I am thinking about this when I should be driving to work right now?

Sister Julie September 25, 2008 at 10:12 am

Sometimes a postulant is called Sister, though usually not until she becomes a novice. Typically novices do wear a white veil, but I’m pretty sure some wear black or gray too. Anyone know? Also, she may have been under first (aka temporary) vows which is part of the formation process before taking final vows.

Annie September 25, 2008 at 11:25 am

So you’re basically saying “it depends”? Hehe 

Gayle OSF September 26, 2008 at 6:20 am

Annie- I had been drawn toward religious life since grade school, but perhaps that made me more inclined to dress in a pieced together habit in front of over 300 of my peers. Even funnier was we enlisted the campus minister who was a real sister, but had never worn a habit. Fun times.

Amy September 27, 2008 at 9:13 am

I have to tell you: I do love “Sister Act!” I love the music and the way the sisters reaching out into the community through songs and service brought people into church. I also liked how Whoopi’s character encouraged the meek nun to hit those high octaves! As a Catholic, I’ve known nuns in habits, nuns who dress dowdy, and nuns who sport bold jewelry and makeup. I really have no stereotype in my mind.

Pierrette September 27, 2008 at 7:52 am

I’m showing my age: The Trouble with Angels, 1966, with Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior in a girls’boarding school. As a veteran of 16 years of Catholic education, including four years as a boarder, this movie seems very real and accurate. I also still love A Nun’s Story, with Audrey Hepburn, portraying the conflict between self and self-abnegation, conscience and obedience. …and of course there is always Mary Tyler Moore flirting with Elvis Presley in Harlem… just kidding.

Bree September 27, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Hmm. Well, this being officially my first blog response (ever) and me not being Catholic or affiliated with any formalized religious group (ever), I thought you might find my perspective worth a read. I had just finished watching “Sister Act” (a personal favourite) with my husband and we began discussing how it might be perceived by the religious community. So I ‘googled’ it and your blog was the first to present itself.

I have always felt a draw towards aspects of religion but have consistently felt an aversion to my perception of judgement (certain beliefs being ‘right’ and others not) and inflexibility in the application of many religious beliefs. Often, the draw is the theory and the aversion the reality of personal interpretations of ‘right’ practice.

What Sister Act has done for me is make faith seem approachable and made me ask questions. Though never having considered it remotely representative of reality, it has made me read the blogs of some women of faith that seem real and a lot of fun – maybe that is the faciliation of perception change with which you might be more comfortable!

Another Sister Julie, CSSF September 27, 2008 at 10:19 pm

In the Poor Clares (like Colletines and Mother Angelica’s group), a postulant wears a jumper and a short veil. In fact, the Colletine Poor Clare postulant gets a short white veil when she first enters (She’s called a Neo [aka, "newbie"] then) and is given the short black veil after the first six weeks. She will get the habit when she is invested as a Novice when she gets the white veil and her religious name.

I don’t understand the extended name, such as Sr. Therese of the Holy Child Jesus. What’s with the title? Is she called by the whole name + title, or is it only for important occsions like profession of vows? Being called by my whole religious name reminds me of when I was a little girl. If Mom called me by my Baptismal name and my surname, I’d better think about coming into the house, but if she threw in my middle name AND my Confirmation name, I knew I was in deep trouble!! So, can anyone explain to me the reasoning behind the titles after some sisters’ names?

Lisa September 30, 2008 at 2:12 pm

I remember a scene from the movie where Tracy Najimy( the joyous, bumbling nun) expresses her delight at the prospect of going out into neighborhood and meeting the people, and how she said that “most of us became nuns to help others, as if they had been stifled—–I was just a bit confused as to what would have driven them to that particular order, where they seemed to be cloistered but not by choice. The Mother Superior kept them over-protected and I wondered what would become of an order in reality that lost it’s purpose for serving as they were meant to. How could the Mother Superior “get away” with being so fearful and be still be a good leader for her community??Wouldn’t anybody WITHIN the Church “call her” on that?? No she had to have a Vegas singer do it. THAT’S how the movie was unrealistic for me.

So….The stereo-types didn’t bother me, but what DID bother me was that the underlying tone of the movie was that nuns needed a “reality check” about service and Whoopi was there to give it.

But I still liked the music—-one of my daughter’s (who is 13) loved it too, and said “AWWW man, NO FAIR! How come we don’t got a choir like that???” When she heard the Hail Holy Queen—~~GORGEOUS~~ absolutely breathtaking.

Sister Julie September 30, 2008 at 3:19 pm

I know that within the history of religious life, there was a time (before the Second Vatican Council) when all nuns were expected to live a more monastic and cloistered life, even if they had been founded to live and minister among the people. I wonder if that’s a veiled (so to speak) reference to that period of time. And then with the Second Vatican Council calling religious to return to their roots, to their original Spirit-inspired charism, religious who had been founded for more active apostolic endeavors could move back out into the streets. I’ll have to check in with some of my nuns and see what the history was.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF October 2, 2008 at 7:52 am

Our foundress and the early sisters had to live by the Rule of the Poor Clares, a cloistered community even though the flegling community was an active one. This was because there were no active orders for women in the 19th C to serve as models, at least not in Poland where we began. Imagine teaching or nursing all day, followed by after hours catechesis and visiting/caring for the orphans, the homebound sick and the elderly, plus getting up at 2AM for prayer! Some of those sisters dropped dead from sheer exhaustion! Like St. Clare before her, our foundress got the approved constitutions on her deathbed. We no longer have to get up at 2AM for prayer–unless we choose to, that is. We have to work at creating a balance between prayer and ministry.

The fictional sisters in Sister Act forgot about that balance. I’m thinking that they suffered some sort of trauma in the neighborhood that made them so insolated.